The rise of capitalism tore apart all the old relationships between humans, and between humans and nature. It was driven by one principle: to make money. Humans and nature were both only seen as resources to exploit, valued only by how much profit could be made from them. Human relations were dominated by cash payments.
Across Europe forests were felled, rivers dammed and channeled, mines sunk. “Dark satanic mills” covered the landscape. Millions of people were driven from the land into filthy cities which were hell holes of disease, polluted water and air. The very food they ate was full of impurities and contaminants.
Nature was treated as a free resource to be exploited with the long-term consequences ignored. Every corner of the planet was bound together. The more industrialized countries enslaved others through both trade and military forces, to produce raw materials and to buy goods – all for profit.
Workers now made commodities which belonged to capitalists who sold these goods for profit. Human needs were now measured by the market, only to be met if it was profitable.
The Slaughter of Millions
As capitalist countries conquered the world, they met the indigenous people already living there. As far as the conquerors were concerned, these people had to be destroyed or enslaved. Across the Americas a wave of blood and suffering was unleashed. In less than a hundred years from 1550, the population was reduced from 80 million to 10 million. In central Mexico the population plummeted from 25 million to 750,000 – 97% of the people wiped out in a century!
The people of Newfoundland were hunted to extinction as a sport. Blankets infected with smallpox, to which the native people had no resistance, were traded, leading to mass deaths. Eight million died in 300 years in one Bolivian silver mine, Potosi.
Some 12 million slaves were imported into the Americas. As well, slaves were sent to other parts of the world, and many more died in war or transport. Some 40 million people were removed from Africa for the profit of capitalism. 1
Truly as Marx wrote: “Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every poor, with blood and dirt.”
This murder was justified in the name of ‘religion’, ‘civilization’, or the ‘white man’s burden’. Today around 200 million of the indigenous people, representing 5,000 cultures, are left in the areas colonized by capitalism.
People of course resisted. Some dreamed of the past, painting it in romantic colors, ignoring the grim reality of feudalism. To this day, the looking back to a Golden age is a powerful dream. Others looked forwards. The new workforce in the cities, as well as some of the middle class, fought for a better future, where new techniques and human labor would be put to the use of society as a whole, not a tiny elite.
Life in the industrial cities was only marginally better than for the exploited native peoples. The cities were terribly overcrowded. One square mile of New York in 1898 had a population of 478,000. People often lived ten or more to a room. Life expectance was short – in Swansea in 1883 the average was 24 years. 2
Now new areas of the planet are witnessing the environmental consequences of capitalist industry as it shifts to previously under-developed areas in south-east Asia, China, etc. The drive for greater profits by using cheaper labor, without unions or health and safety controls in these new areas has meant that previously forested and unpolluted areas are feeling the full force of increased logging and greater pollution. The workers are feeling the full force of increased logging and greater pollution. The workers and other peoples of the areas and the local environment feel the full damaging effects of the introduction of capitalist industry.
Economic ‘Success’ – Environmental Disaster
Taiwan is often held up as an economic success story. It is also a tale of cheap labor and environmental damage. The air in the capital city Taipei is classified as harmful for 17% of the year, 62 days. This is despite very lax standards: a Pollution Standard Index of 150 is considered harmful in the USA while only over 400 is harmful in Taiwan. The spread of industry has created widespread pollution. 20% of agricultural land is polluted by industrial waste. 30% of rice grown is contaminated with heavy metals. Rivers are combustible and have black oily water and yellow foul-smelling smoke rising from them. Only 1% of human sewage receives primary treatment (settling of solid waste) before being released into rivers. This is one reason why Taiwan has the highest hepatitis infection rate in the world.
Agriculture is extremely intense with widespread deforestation and soil erosion. High levels of fertilizers and pesticides are used, much of which is washed into the drinking water system. Farm workers who use pesticides are dubbed “no good” men by their neighbors and suffer high levels of ill health and death. 3
Colonialism: Old and New
The majority of the planet’s land surface – and the vast majority of the world’s people – is made up of what is sometimes known as the ‘Third’, ‘Underdeveloped’ or ‘Developing’ World. These are the countries – is Asia, Africa and Latin America – which were dominated by the ‘great powers’ in the past. Regions, nations, and seven sub-continents were ruled by foreign powers – Britain, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and others – who used brutal methods of repression to keep people subjugated, enabling the colonial – or imperialist – powers to keep vast profits flowing into their banks. Particularly after the Second World War, mass movements of millions of people for national independence and self-determination threw the imperialist powers out. But imperialism has not disappeared – it has just changed its spots. The advanced capitalist countries have given up on direct rule. Instead, their domination is economic, maintained by the ownership of the multinationals and international financial institutions. As US civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson, said at a conference of African nations: “They used to use the bullet or the rope … now they use the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund”. From now on, we shall refer to these countries as ‘neo-colonial’.
In the early days of capitalism, individual companies competed with each other for control of markets and higher profits. Now the world is dominated by a few hundred multinationals, each with a turnover larger than many countries. 350 big monopolies now dominate 40% of all trade in the world. With fantastic technology, large-scale industry and enormous financial powers these companies and the governments of the big western powers control the fate of the planet. They are even strong enough to plunge parts of the world into war.
The giant oil companies, together with the desperate need of big business for oil, plunged the people of the Middle East into a bloody war in 1991. While the capitalist powers pretended that the Gulf War was about Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, or Saddam’s brutal regime, it was really about keeping control of Kuwait’s oil supplies. As a senior American politician put it: “if Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn.” As a result, up to 150,000 Iraqis were killed in a brutal war, large areas of southern Iraq were destroyed, millions of tons of carbon dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere as oil fires raged out of control … and the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein stayed in power!
Kind Hearts and Business Heads
Of course, even some capitalists are concerned about growing environmental problems. Unlike in the past, even if they move away to mansions in green countryside and mountain retreats they can no longer escape from the poisons they produce.
The growth of environmental concern has created a new market for ‘green’ companies and so-called eco-friendly products. Where these products are produced in a less damaging way, they can play a small role in protecting the environment. Yet their protection is usually small scale, many of the claims made for them don’t stand up to closer inspection and they are often little more than a marketing con.
The problem is not this or that individual capitalist – some of them may even be very nice people! – but the way the whole system works. Even the most ‘environmentally-friendly’ company works in the same basic way. They have to put profits first and look for cheaper ways to make goods and provide services. If one company spends money to prevent pollution, or on other steps to protect the environment, they will be under-cut by another firm. Economically, it is still in the interests of business to treat the environment as a free resource, which does not enter their balance sheets – the costs are met by someone else: the state, consumers or workers. Accountants and economists even have a name for it – the ‘externalization’ of costs.
The very nature of competition and the way everything is given a price, treated as a commodity, is the key to understanding how capitalism wrecks the planet. Capitalism keeps the costs of extracting raw materials and of getting rid of waste as low as possible by ignoring the environment.
Marketing and Advertising
Competition is an inevitable and necessary consequence of capitalist economics. It is an extremely inefficient way of running an economy, creating unnecessary duplication of products, techniques and research, and huge amounts of wasteful or unneeded products.
As the system has become more complex and competitive, secondary factors, like marketing and advertising, have become increasingly important. These secondary factors, exclusive to capitalist economics, have a very damaging effect on the environment. A socialist society would mean the planning of resources and production of society and the ending of duplication and unnecessary competition. A great deal of waste and environmental damage could be done away with almost overnight.
Advertising has become big business. Huge sums of money – $250 billion a year world-wide – massive amounts of resources, and many people’s time are all used to persuade us to buy one product or another. The drugs companies spend twice as much on advertising as they do on research into new products! There is a whole industry just trying to convince us that one washing-powder is better than another. They even use masses of paper to tell us how ‘green’ their products are! Every year packaging of goods consumes vast quantities of energy, forests of trees and produces mountains of waste. Of course we need containers for things, but as most packaging is about image and advertising, not practical use, and is not reusable, it adds up to a huge waste. A 1992 survey found that, of the average £75 cost of a typical shopping bill in a British supermarket, just over £10 of that was for assorted wrappings and packagings. In the USA alone, packaging uses 50% of the paper produced in that country, 90% of the glass, 11% of the aluminum and 3% of all energy. This packaging amounts to 50% by volume of municipal waste. 4
Many goods are deliberately made so they wear out in a few years ensuring there is a market to sell new ones to. Built-in obsolescence, as it is called, is an important marketing ploy and one which is extremely damaging to the environment. It would be possible in a socialist economy to manufacture a huge range of goods to last the same time as reducing the work week and providing alternative useful jobs for the workforce. Many goods are advertised on the virtue that they are disposable – use once and throw-away. And if your tires, car stereo, or computer doesn’t break down or wear out after a while, you can be sure that capitalist marketing will invent a better one or more fashionable model to persuade you to get rid of the old one and buy a newer one, putting more money in their pockets.
Food is increasingly standardized, even the shape and color of fruit and vegetables is dominated by marketing policy. This needs large quantities of chemicals, which damage the soil and water, as well as being harmful to people. Large amounts of edible produce are dumped as they do not conform to a marketing image.
All these policies only increase profits because they are based on short-term economics which do not include – or ‘externalize’ – the environmental or social costs.
Making a Profit – The Highest Law
Over the years, legislation – the Clean Air Ace, the Environmental Protection Act and others – has been introduced to limit some of the worst excesses of capitalism. Over 100 years ago laws were established to limit some extremes of pollution, establish food standards and clean water. The state, although representing the interests of capitalism, sometimes takes action to limit the excesses of individual companies to protect the overall interests of the ruling class. Reforms have often been introduced in response to mass pressure, to prevent further action which could threaten the entire system. Even those partial reforms are not given, but won in struggle. However, the short-termism of capitalism is never addressed. So one problem is often replaced by another – smogs produced by coal burning have been replaced, for example, by car pollution smogs in most cities.
Big business is always looking for ways around the law. They claim that compliance costs too much and are constantly campaigning to reduce controls. Or else they just move to where the controls are looser. Since 1969, over 2,000 factories have sprung up on the Mexican side of the border with the USA, to take advantage of the easier environmental laws and cheaper wages. These maquiladora import parts and raw materials from the USA and then export the finished products. The only thing they leave behind is toxic waste. The biggest, Ciudad Juarez, has grown from a sleepy frontier town to a city of over one million people in less than a generation. 150,000 people are employed by companies like General Motors, Ford and Toshiba in plants that pay one-sixth the wages they would in the US. Meanwhile one-third of the city has no piped water and the rest send their sewage to a 30 km ditch of stinking black ooze. Residents often find illegal dumps of toxic waste and the city is permanently enveloped, along with its nearest Texan neighborhood, El Paso, in a brown smog.
In recent years Regan and Bush in the USA and Thatcher and Major in Britain, and their followers elsewhere, have weakened many protective laws. Even where they still remain, enforcement is weak. There are few inspectors and fines are often so low that it is profitable for firms to ignore the law. DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical firms, paid out nearly a million dollars a day in fines and other legal charges between May 1989 and July 1991. This was cheaper than taking action to prevent pollution.
It is only constant pressure that forces capitalism, temporarily and partially, to limit its damage to the environment. But, at any opportunity the bosses will be back to their polluting ways if it’s the way to make money.